PALM BEACH – President Donald Trump hinted at military action against Syria Thursday as his administration considered how to retaliate against President Bashar Assad for this week’s chemical weapons attack that killed more than 80 people. Top military leaders discussed options with the president, likely including a missile strike.
Trump suggested strongly that Assad may have to leave power, and his comments were underscored by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who told reporters “there’s no role for him to govern the Syrian people.”
The administration has been put to the test this week amid an international outcry over the newly horrifying violence in Syria. Over the past seven years, hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in the nation’s civil war, triggering the worst refugee crisis since World War II.
Trump’s tone has grown more grave with the passing days. On Wednesday, he said this week’s attack crossed “a lot of lines” — not just the “red line” of chemical weapons use that President Barack Obama once set as an ultimatum for the Assad government.
Trump has shown a particularly emotional response to photos and video of dead children, and he said Thursday, “I think what happened in Syria is a disgrace to humanity.” Asked if Assad should remain in power, he said that “he’s there and I guess he’s running things so something should happen.”
Trump commented aboard Air Force One en route to meet China’s President Xi Jinping at a Florida summit.
Top defense leaders were discussing military options developed by the Pentagon with the president, U.S. officials said. They commented only on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to address the sensitive information publicly by name.
The range of options would be likely to mirror those shelved at the last minute by the Obama administration in 2013. Then, the U.S. was poised to launch missiles from ships in the Mediterranean, targeting military air fields, command and control facilities and other key locations.
A precise missile strike, potentially against targets associated with the chemical weapons attack, could be considered an appropriate and measured response, especially in an area where there would be little possibility Russian troops would be present.
The U.S. doesn’t want to start a war with Moscow, and there are Russian troops, aircraft and other equipment on most of the Syrian bases.
Tillerson, who spoke almost simultaneously after greeting Xi in Florida, said there was “no doubt in our minds” that Assad’s government was behind the attacks and the U.S. was evaluating an appropriate response.
“The process by which Assad would leave is something that will require an international community effort,” Tillerson said, adding that there needs to be a balance between defeating the Islamic State group and stabilizing Syria to prevent the civil war from escalating further.
Tillerson also issued a warning to Russia that its support of the Assad government is something that it should “consider carefully.”
Late Wednesday, Trump advisers had huddled at the White House to discuss options for responding to the chemical attack, including both military action and economic sanctions, according to a senior administration official. It was unclear how fast the president planned to decide and implement a response, according to the official, who insisted on anonymity in order to discuss the sensitive planning.
Tillerson has been in contact with his Russian counterparts, the official said, but Trump has not spoken with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump told reporters traveling with him to Florida Thursday that he may speak with Putin.
In Washington, two senior Republican senators called for Trump to strike at Syria’s air force as part of a swift and forceful response to the attack, which killed more than two-dozen children.
Sens. John McCain of Arizona, who spoke to Trump on Wednesday, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said in a statement that Assad “must pay a punitive cost for this horrific attack.”
“This is a test of the new administration, but also for our entire country,” said Graham and McCain, who have been among Trump’s harshest congressional critics. “Assad is trying to see what he can get away with.”
Graham later told reporters he doesn’t believe Trump needs Congress to authorize the use of military force in Syria. He added that the Senate has become so dysfunctional it may be difficult to get Republicans and Democrats to agree on a resolution approving the use of force.
“Hit this guy,” Graham said of Assad. “You’ve got my full permission.” He said he has not talked to Trump about military options.
But Sen. Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, took a more measured approach, saying he first wanted to hear from the White House what military options it may be considering.
Asked if he supported grounding Syria’s air force, Corker told reporters he’d “like to see what the administration proposes.”
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, Republican-Calif., said he was glad that Trump was meeting with national security advisers to consider options to hold Assad accountable. He encouraged Trump to consult with Congress, too.
“The use of chemical weapons is abhorrent, and Assad’s brazen gassing of men, women and children cannot be tolerated,” Royce said.